Our lead­ers: Are they very smart or in­cred­i­bly stupid?

The Myanmar Times - - Front Page - ROGER MIT­TON roger­mit­ton@gmail.com

WHEN the cen­tral char­ac­ter in the 1998 movie En­emy of the State feigns ig­no­rance about what’s hap­pen­ing, his good-guy side­kick ex­plodes and shouts, “You’re ei­ther very smart – or in­cred­i­bly stupid.”

It’s a line that res­onates these days when seek­ing to un­der­stand many of the world’s po­lit­i­cal lead­ers and es­pe­cially those in this re­gion.

First, it en­cap­su­late the rather per­verse fact that try­ing to dis­tin­guish be­tween smart­ness and stu­pid­ity can be strangely dif­fi­cult, even when as­sess­ing fig­ures who are in the pub­lic eye ev­ery day.

That has been made clear by the rise of Don­ald Trump, who, de­spite a wob­bly de­bate per­for­mance on Septem­ber 26, is now within an inch of be­com­ing the most pow­er­ful man in the world.

Ask a dozen peo­ple if Trump is smart or stupid and the an­swers will bal­ance out more or less equally, al­though some­times more peo­ple will say he is stupid than say he is smart.

But it does not seem to mat­ter ei­ther way, for the fact is that in a lit­tle over a month’s time, he may be elected pres­i­dent of the United States.

It is a prospect that un­nerves many peo­ple in this re­gion who fear that Trump’s ac­tions may roil South­east Asia’s rel­a­tive sta­bil­ity and strate­gic bal­ance. and may even pre­cip­i­tate global chaos.

When a slew of for­eign am­bas­sadors based in Wash­ing­ton were sur­veyed about this, they re­sponded in a most undiplo­matic man­ner; in­deed, one might say they spoke in Trump­ist lan­guage.

“He is a clown,” said one am­bas­sador. “He’s nuts,” said an­other. None ap­pears to have said he is very smart.

The sur­vey also re­vealed that if they were able to vote, only 7 per­cent of these plenipo­ten­tiaries would vote for Trump over his ri­val Hil­lary Clin­ton.

But then these are guys who speak French and stand up when a lady en­ters a room, so per­haps they are among the few who can dis­tin­guish be­tween smart and stupid.

As for the strug­gling masses who clean their own shoes, they are bid­ing their time, both about Trump and his star­tling equiv­a­lents in this re­gion.

No prizes for guess­ing who they are: Pres­i­dent Ro­drigo Duterte of the Philip­pines, Prime Min­is­ter Hun Sen of Cam­bo­dia, Gen­eral Prayut Chan-ocha of Thai­land, and Prime Min­is­ter Na­jib Razak of Malaysia.

Are these guys very smart or in­cred­i­bly stupid? It is of­ten hard to say.

Aside from Prayut, who seized power in a coup and is an ex­cep­tion, the oth­ers have all won elec­tions, per­haps ques­tion­ably at times, but they thus far have re­tained power.

That said, most in­de­pen­dent ob­servers would not be sur­prised in the least if any one of them, or even all of them, were to be kicked out to­mor­row.

For they all be­have, of­ten re­peat­edly, in ways that makes com­mon folk stop as if struck by a thun­der­bolt and won­der: Is our leader to­tally bonkers? Or some kind of weird ge­nius? Or is it rain­ing meat­balls?

Let’s get spe­cific and look at Duterte, the wack­i­est mem­ber the elected trio, whose pen­chant for crude com­ments about ev­ery­one from Pope Fran­cis to US Pres­i­dent Barack Obama de­fies all logic.

Af­ter all, Catholics form a huge ma­jor­ity in his coun­try – more than 80pc, and Amer­ica is a long­stand­ing treaty ally that pro­vides the Philip­pines with a se­cu­rity um­brella.

Yet Duterte mocks both – just as he mocks the United Na­tions and any­one else who crit­i­cises him.

His crass pom­pos­ity and bra­gadac­cio have briefly made him more pop­u­lar at home, but there is a tide in the af­fairs of men and re­cent signs in­di­cate that it may be start­ing to go out for Duterte.

Last week, so­cial me­dia in the Philip­pines was awash with talk of a pos­si­ble mil­i­tary coup by of­fi­cers up­set by the pres­i­dent’s in­sults against al­lies and his sup­port for the mass mur­der of al­leged drug deal­ers on the streets.

Some an­a­lysts have al­ready sur­mised that like Joseph Estrada, one of his re­cent pre­de­ces­sors, who was turfed out af­ter com­plet­ing less than half his term, Duterte will not last long in the pres­i­den­tial palace.

A sim­i­lar fate is pos­si­ble for Cam­bo­dia’s Hun Sen and Malaysia’s Na­jib, who have both sur­vived re­cent bat­ter­ings, and, in Hun Sen’s case, re­acted with lan­guage Duterte and Trump would en­dorse.

In­deed, in al­most vig­i­lante style, the Cam­bo­dian leader vowed last week to “elim­i­nate” his po­lit­i­cal op­po­nents if they pro­ceed with a planned de­mon­stra­tion against his gov­ern­ment.

Ri­val leg­is­la­tors have al­ready been beaten up by Hun Sen’s se­cu­rity forces, while the ju­di­ciary, widely viewed as po­lit­i­cally bi­ased, has rou­tinely im­pris­oned op­po­si­tion­ists on trumped-up charges.

The crack­down is seen as part of an early prepa­ra­tion for the next gen­eral elec­tion due in 2018, when many pre­dict that the Cam­bo­dian op­po­si­tion has a de­cent chance of build­ing on its near vic­tory in the pre­vi­ous polls.

Hun Sen will no more al­low that to hap­pen than his Malaysian coun­ter­part Na­jib will coun­te­nance be­ing forced out over a multi-bil­lion-dol­lar scan­dal at 1MDB, a state wealth fund for which, as chair, he was re­spon­si­ble.

Na­jib, an ur­bane, Bri­tish-ed­u­cated Malay, let his step­son ex­ploit 1MDB, let his top ad­vi­sor se­duce a Mon­go­lian model who was later mur­dered, and lets his brash shopa­holic wife run riot in de­signer stores.

Yet for now, like Duterte and Hun Sen, he sur­vives. So per­haps these guys re­ally are very smart – or the vot­ers are in­cred­i­bly stupid.

Ei­ther way, so­lace may be sought in the Bi­ble’s Psalm 146, verse 3: “Put not your trust in princes, nor in the son of man, in whom there is no help.”

In other words, please don’t get suck­ered in by crude tough guys, be­cause when push comes to shove they’ll only look af­ter num­ber one.

Photo: EPA

Cam­bo­dia’s Prime Min­is­ter Hun Sen takes photo with a 360-de­gree cam­era dur­ing the As­so­ci­a­tion of South­east Asian Na­tions Plus Three Sum­mits in Vi­en­tiane, Laos, on Septem­ber 7.

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